TORONTO - The thorny issue of public funding for treatment of children with autism leapt into the Ontario election campaign Saturday, as the New Democrats announced a proposal to provide blanket therapy for all children who need it right in their classrooms - a strategy the Liberals say is unsustainable.

An NDP government would provide publicly funded Intensive Behavioural Intervention - a very expensive, one-on-one treatment - in classrooms for all autistic children, Leader Howard Hampton said during a campaign stop.

Speaking at a park in a suburb north of Toronto, Hampton said he would clear the waiting list that 900 children currently are on within three years. About 1,400 kids are funded for the IBI treatment; many other families pay out of pocket.

"With our Ontario autism strategy, a child who qualifies for IBI treatment will benefit from the day they qualify," he said.

"No more long waiting lists, no longer the need for families to mortgage or sell their homes to pay for their children's therapy."

But, in an interview, Children and Youth Services Minister Mary Anne Chambers said the issue can't be solved by tossing money around.

"There simply aren't enough autism support providers in Ontario to provide one-on-one treatment with every child who needs it," she said.

The Liberal government has been working to hire more specialists and establish and expand college training programs for therapists, Chambers said, noting that spending on autism has tripled since the party took power in 2003.

Sorting out what to do about funding for treatment for children with autism has been a sticky issue for the Liberal government.

Critics have said the Liberals haven't done enough to help parents cover the costs, yet the government spent $2.4 million over seven years - including several under Progressive Conservative rule - to fight parents suing for treatment for kids over six.

Before July 2005, autism treatment was extended only to children under the age of six. The change was the result of a campaign promise by Premier Dalton McGuinty in 2003.

While schools are required to provide a broad range of Applied Behavioural Analysis therapies, the decision on whether to allow IBI currently remains at the discretion of school boards and principals.

One mother, Mary Turner of Bradford, Ont., said she is tired of Liberal politics and policies and wants only what's best for the children.

"My school is fantastic with my kids, and they would love to help them more, but the funding just isn't there," said Turner who has three children with autism whom she wishes could receive treatment in the classroom.

"It would be nice if the politics and policies weren't there, and they were looking after the best interests of the kids, and we could actually get my private therapist into the school to help the school staff," she said of current government policies.

Turner said she needs to pull her daughter out of school to get the 20 hours of treatment the government allows because the classtime and therapy combined leaves the girl "no time left to be a child."

Cindy DeCarlo, the mother of a five-year-old autistic boy and co-founder of the Alliance for Families with Autism, said while she's pleased by the attention being given to autism, she is concerned about having an adequate infrastructure to support the children and therapists.

It's encouraging that the three main political parties are considering the needs of families touched by autism, but parents shouldn't be given false hope, she said.

"Regardless of who gets elected, there's a lot of work to be done and it's not going to be a Band-Aid solution," she said.

Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory released an autism policy in February, saying his party would clear the wait list for children under six, continue support for school-age children, and provide a variety of funding and service options to parents.

The Conservative policy would cost an additional $75 million annually. The NDP policy would require an additional $100 million each year on top of the $116 million the government now spends.

Hampton's announcement was timed to coincide with a provincewide Day of Action for children with autism, sponsored by the non-partisan Ontario Autism Coalition.

Co-founder Laura Kirby-McIntosh, who has a seven-year-old son with autism, said her group held rallies in six cities to raise awareness and make sure autism is on the political agenda.

"We're hoping that by visiting so many Liberal offices today we'll provoke a response out of them," she said.

The coalition, one of several broad-based autism groups in the province, is calling for an end to the wait list, a framework to bring IBI therapists into schools, and a formal accreditation system for therapists, Kirby-McIntosh said.